BEVERLY HILLS -- I started out in show business, really, I say '46 but actually it was 1944. In my front yard. My grandfather bought me a cowboy uniform. And they told me, "Don't slip in the dog poo-poo." And I did. And I just kept slippin' in it and falling, they just laughed, it was beautiful. And that was my first comedy routine. And I just been slippin' in {it} ever since... . -- from the album "Who Me? I'm Not Him," 1977

You can hear Richard Pryor in the other room, a voice scratchy and weak, yet with the lilt of flirtation. And there are the voices of several young women who help him now, who care for him, groom him, keep him company. Playful voices.

In this room, there's a gorgeously dressed Christmas tree, all tall and fat, with a mound of shredded white plastic at its feet. Poinsettias and mums all over the place. It's two days before Christmas.

And there's an empty black leather throne -- a huge, cushiony recliner pointed toward the glass door, toward a back yard with two robust dogs and a hazy vista from high up in the hills. Beside this chair is a chunk of glass with a fresh pack of Marlboros and a Scripto lighter waiting inside it. A lit cigarette rises from between Pryor's fingers in the framed photograph on the other side of the chair; his arm is around Margot Kidder's shoulder, and other friends and associates are standing around, and Pryor is smiling -- a disquieting show of teeth in a face with so little flesh.

He used to be the most awe-inspiring comedian alive. But in September 1991, at a splendorous Friars Club roast in Manhattan, with 100 stars on the dais -- performers who inspired him, like Dick Gregory, and performers he has inspired, like Chris Rock -- two men had to guide Pryor's frail frame to the seat of honor.

That was an afternoon of filthy jokes -- the kind that go well with cigar smoke -- and of brutal ribbing. "Here is a man," said emcee Robin Williams, "who believed not only that black is beautiful, but black is flammable." There were plenty of jokes about the 1980 fire, after a cocaine-smoking jag, that almost killed him. And Pryor laughed the hardest, sometimes raising a bony hand in the air. And why not? He built his career translating personal pain into public laughter: drug addiction, heart attacks, racism. "No one," said Bill Murray, "has stood on a stage alone and been as brave as Richard Pryor."

When it came his turn to speak, Pryor was helped onto a stool, and the first thing he mentioned was the number of white people in the room. "I never seen this many before who didn't want to hurt me." Big laughter.

He proceeded with halting and drifting thoughts. He talked about recent heart surgery and hallucinating in his hospital bed about catching trout; he told Joan Rivers he wanted to come on her talk show (which he did); he finally declared, with a simple sincerity, "I'm happy. I'm looking down this lo-o-o-ong table, and I'm happy."

Pryor will be in Washington to perform New Year's Eve at Constitution Hall. When fans talk about this, there's a morbid tingling of the skin. Is he dying? Is this his last stand? Does he want to go out swinging?

Marilyn Staley, Pryor's executive assistant, comes into the living room. Blond and attractive in the muted, decorous manner of a TV newscaster, Staley handles all aspects of his schedule these days. She has set up this morning interview, which Pryor is granting because of his return to the concert stage.

For months, Pryor has been trying out material at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, attracting the likes of Eddie Murphy, Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, Arsenio Hall and Al Pacino. He jokes about his multiple sclerosis, the chronic neurological disease that was diagnosed in 1986. He jokes about wetting himself. He jokes about being impotent. "It's funny when you're looking at your {penis} and it goes, 'Ha ha ha.' "

On Oct. 31, at a 3,700-seat theater in the San Francisco Bay Area, Pryor did his first concert in five years, a 40-minute set. New Year's Eve in Washington will be his second.

"Does he know he's early?" Pryor says to his assistant, his voice carrying from the other room.

Some minutes later, Staley returns. The interview will take place in Richard's bedroom.

Faster than a bowl of chitlins. Able to leap a slum with a single bound. "Look, up in the sky!" "It's a crow." "It's a bat." No, it's Super Nigger! Yes, friends, Super Nigger. With X-ray vision that enables him to see through everything except Whitey. We find Clark Washington, mild-mannered custodian for the Daily Planet, walking into Perry White's office. "Say, man, I quit. That's it, man. I'm tired of doing the floors and everything, baby. That's it, I'm through, you dig it?" "Can't talk to you now, the warehouse is on fire!" ... "Damn, that's where I got my stash. This looks like a job for Super Nigger."

-- from the album "Who Me? I'm Not Him," 1977

With the head of the bed raised, he is sitting up, eating breakfast from a tray that spans his blanketed thighs. He smiles graciously. He's wearing a plain T-shirt. The smell is baby powder.

Pryor reaches around on the bed for a remote control. With sluggish, purposeful motions, he finds and presses the button that makes the image on his big-screen TV -- some old colorized movie -- collapse into blackness.

And it begins. The San Francisco concert, was that a good show?

"Well, don't go by me, 'cause I don't build 'em up so much," Pryor says, the words slightly slurred. "But she tells me it was great." He points to Staley, who has planted herself across the room.

"Overwhelming. That's what it was like for me," he says. " 'Cause the people were loving. A lot of the people in the audience came from the hospital, MS people. They came backstage, you know. And I thought that was nice. And I did the best I could."

This is a groundbreaking thing, a comedian doing a whole routine about being seriously ill. He doesn't seem to be shy about it at all.

"Why? Why hide from it?" Pryor says, unfolding his arms. "Here it is. I like to go sometimes out, and -- " His words jumble. He stops. He chides himself kiddingly -- "Don't talk so fast!"

His guest offers to leave until he's finished breakfast.

"You're not doing anything to me," he says gently. "It's very nice of you to come. So if I choke and die -- 'Well, he choked and died, he was doing an interview' " The room fills with laughter. Pryor is still definitely in the game.

He says he's not dying. In fact, he plans to do more concerts. Got an Atlantic City gig lined up for Jan. 16, and he's doing the National Football League's party on Super Bowl eve. And he's got a new agent at William Morris to bring him more acting work. The day before the interview, Pryor taped a guest appearance on Martin Lawrence's Fox sitcom, "Martin." ("He played himself," Staley says later. "He did it in two takes.")

"You can have {MS} for a long time," Pryor says. "And it affects some of us different. Some people can just have a little smudgy-moogy of it, and it don't affect 'em. And you see some people -- "

"In wheelchairs," Staley says.

"Yeah. If they can get in a wheelchair," he says. "When the doctors told me that that's what they thought I had, I came back here, and on TV -- I've never seen this show since -- they had this little girl. She was 19, you know what I'm saying? She had MS, and it looked like polio. I mean, it can {mess} wit' you. ... It regresses, and then sometimes, it'll jump on me."

Sense any anxiety from the audience? Because it's one thing to joke about the fire when people can't see the scars.

"When I walk out," he says, "sometimes it's very hard to stand up. So I grab the chair, I hold, and the moment goes with that. 'Cause they watch and say, 'What's he gon' do?' " -- a mock gasp -- "and I go with it. I use it." He does most of the show sitting down.

Why is Richard Pryor doing this? Why put himself through the work?

"Aside from the fact I need money?" he asks. "I love it. I love to be onstage, facing them. And they tell me about the {stuff}, whether it's right or wrong. They end a fantasy quick.

"What's that guy who used to fight windmills? He used to fight windmills."

Don Quixote?

"Don Quixote," he says. " 'Cause they can throw you up in the stars, or sling you into the mud. That's {expletive} great!

"I saw that show once with Richard Harris. And Sophia Loren. She was the woman, whoever she was. And the guy dressed her up like the queen and stuff, to play a joke on Don Quixote. She's a rag lady, you know. And Don Quixote saw her, and the king was building her up. ... And Don Quixote looked at her, said -- " Pryor's voice falls to a whisper as he recites the line: " 'But your majesty, I have always seen you thus.' "

"And it {messed} me up," he says. "You know? For a guy to say that to a woman." He whispers again: " 'I have always seen you thus.'

" 'Cause the joke didn't work, whatever it was. And the king got pissed off." Pryor laughs again.

Then, with a somewhat embarrassed grin, he says, "And now, back to what we were talking about."

The money. The money is really an issue?

"Yes sir. When is the money not real?" he says. "There's one thing I've learned in my life: Don't ever be without money. I don't care what you've got." His voice becomes an almost silent screech: "Don't ever be without money!"

So it's a matter of needing to do this?

"Ask Marilyn," he says, turning to his assistant. "Do I need to do this?"

She says he needs to do it "for himself."

"Thank you," Pryor says. "That saved it." He laughs. " 'Cause I didn't know what you was gon' say. 'You're {expletive} right he needs it!' "

Boxing is serious. When niggers and white people fight, I always be rooting for the nigger. Even if he bad. "Please whip the white folks." I don't want white folks to win nothin'. ... 'Cause they don't give a nigger a break. Jackson 5 be singing they ass off, they be talkin' 'bout the Osmond Brothers. {Expletive} a Osmond Brother! ... -- from the album "Craps -- After Hours," 1971 On Dec. 1, 1940, in Peoria, Ill., Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor was born.

He has always been frank about growing up in a whorehouse, about his family's involvement in prostitution. He told reporters about peeking in keyholes and over transoms. Joked onstage about the way whores do their job.

His roots in black street life would eventually shape his comedy. His abundant use of the word "nigger" -- an essential of the ghetto vernacular -- was shocking to many. (It's a word he defended, then forswore after a trip to Africa.)

But before he exploded to fame in the 1970s with his barrier-breaking, profane, hilarious and intimate monologues about sex, drugs and race, Pryor had already gained a measure of success as a clean-cut young joke-teller. Just recently, an "Ed Sullivan Show" rerun from the '60s came on TV, with a gangly and endearing Pryor doing an absolutely corny routine about the military. He was in the Army from 1958 to 1960, but this bit was set on a submarine: "I never understood why they gave a guy on a submarine a pep talk, 'cause you couldn't get off." From there, he did Johnny Carson and made plenty of appearances on "The Merv Griffin Show."

Then came that night of legend, at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. Some refer to it as a "breakdown." Different versions of the story have it happening in 1967, 1970 and 1971, but John A. and Dennis A. Williams, in their 1991 biography "If I Stop I'll Die," put it at Sept. 15, 1967. Pryor, onstage, said something like, "What am I doing here?" And he walked off.

In 1969, Pryor moved to Berkeley, started hanging with a clique of hip black writers including Ishmael Reed and Claude Brown, and did a lot of cocaine. As the Williamses report it: "He was so strung out that people didn't want him around their kids -- and told him so. They often didn't want him to be around them, either."

The new comedian that emerged, beginning with the 1971 album "Craps -- After Hours," was edgy and dangerous, his words electric with racial resentment and sexual hostility.

"It's really funny to have a wife," he said on that album. " 'Cause we was in love, man ... till we got married. No, it was really fun, we had little funny things we used to do together. I used to bring her a rock, she'd go, 'Oh, a rock. A rock for me?' If I bring that bitch a rock now, she'd hit me with it... .

"We have some great fights, though. I mean, me and my woman have serious fistfights. Not like on TV where you be arguing. 'Cause she hurt my ego, I'll punch her out."

Come 1993, Pryor says, he will begin working on his autobiography, with a ghostwriter. Is there much for Pryor to come to grips with, after years of examining the details of his life onstage?

"There's a lot," he says. "You know, like, in life? It's wonderful, our lives. You know, where you start from and where you are, doesn't that amaze you sometimes? 'Oh {expletive}!' That's what I do."

He catches sight of his two retrievers out the window, one sleekly black, one golden. They're lovely.

"Brother and Pretty Lady? Yeah," he says. "Brother swims sometimes. Pretty Lady ... she doesn't jump in the water. And she's a retriever, you know? So I figured, the people that had her {Pryor got her from an animal-rescue agency} must have abused her. 'Oh, you like to swim, huh?' " He holds an imaginary dog's head underwater. " 'Cause she don't {mess} wit' the water. But Brother, he can't wait to get out of the pool and go up next to her and shake. That's his favorite thing."

Pryor looks his guest in the eye. "Thank you very much for coming out here. You seem like a happy human being, and that's nice. Are you married?"

No.

"That's why you're happy!" he says, a declaration of exaggerated jocularity for which he pushes himself up off the bed. Everybody laughs.

Does Pryor look forward to reexamining his whole life step by step?

"I want to just deal with it," he says. "Because it's no good if you don't do that. But I think it's cathartic somehow. Maybe, when it's over, the book part, I can walk. You know?

"There's a lot of {stuff} I want to get to from childhood. Just examine. Honestly. Which is very, very hard. That's a hard thing, honesty. Some people do, ooh, this much." He holds up a finger and a thumb an inch apart. "I want to do it. 'Cause I laid here, and all these womens and stuff be writing books about me. {Expletive} that. I want to tell it myself. 'Cause it's been 'bout eight books written about me already I had nothing to do with." (Last year one of Pryor's five ex-wives, Jennifer Lee, wrote a memoir describing how he'd beaten her during their marriage in the 1980s. According to Staley, Pryor denies the charge and refuses to read Lee's book.)

"This will be your version," Staley says. "The real version."

"I hope so," Pryor says. "I hope we print the {stuff} and nobody go, 'Aw, that ain't the {expletive} truth!' " His face squinches in laughter.

His stint in Germany with the Army, that's one thing he'll write about. He says it affected him profoundly. He used to joke about having joined the military because girls liked the uniform, and he'd say how cool it was when the older fellows came back to the neighborhood after serving over there: "Yes, I was over in Deutschland, you know. It's a gas over there, you know. I was over there a couple of months, you dig? Sprechen Sie Deutsch, you dig?"

"It sounded great," Pryor exclaims from his bed. "That they knew German. But it was GI Dutch." He chuckles. "They didn't know, but I knew, they were somewhere that was magic, you know? In their life. They had touched something." He's down to a whisper now. " 'Cause most of the time, they would never have gotten to touch it, to see that there were other things in the world. I got to see it, man. I really did... . "

One time he was walking down a street with two other black soldiers, and a white soldier was coming the other way. And one of the black GIs, unprovoked, knocked the white guy out, then ran away. "And I was standing there like a {jerk}. I was going, 'What?' I didn't get it. As angry as I was, I didn't get that part of it."

Also: "I fell in love so many times! And the womens -- this broke my heart -- I was with this woman, and I went to her house, and there was another black soldier in the house. But this was my girlfriend! My first experience" -- another chuckle -- "of knowing that women ... they're different. I stood there like, I couldn't understand it. Even the soldier came out, he said, 'What's wrong?' I said -- " He does a pitiful, confused whimper. "And I know, somewhere, it went the same way for him that it just finished for me.

"But that didn't teach me much," he says, " 'cause I tried it again. I had faith eternal."

So what has he concluded about women?

Pryor whispers: "The best thing God created, other than men."

Other than men?

"Yeah, women are the best," he says, barely audible. "They're the best."

I don't like movies when they don't have no niggers in 'em. ... They had a movie of the future called 'Logan's Run,' ain't no niggers in it. I say, "Well, white folks ain't plannin' for us to be here!" That's why we gotta make movies, and we be in the future. But we gotta make some really hip movies. We done made enough movies about pimps, because white folks already know about pimpin'. 'Cause we the biggest hoes they got. -- from the album "Bicentennial Nigger," 1976

By the late '70s, Richard Pryor was one of the biggest names in Hollywood. His albums -- "That Nigger's Crazy," "Is It Something I Said?," "Bicentennial Nigger" -- were million-sellers, and they'd earned him Grammy Awards as well as heroic status in black America. After stealing the 1976 Gene Wilder comedy "Silver Streak" in a supporting role, he was a bona fide "crossover" star. Movie studios fell over each other to sell Richard Pryor to white America.

His 1979 stand-up film, "Richard Pryor: Live in Concert," which showcased his graceful body movements and expressive face as well as his words, is widely hailed as a masterpiece.

But in the '80s, something strange started to happen, noticeably with "Superman III." The ads showed Pryor, wide-eyed with comic fear, in the arms of a flying white Superman. Who can remember that Pryor got a reported $4 million for the job, compared with $3 million for Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel? But who can forget that image on the movie posters? For "The Toy," the advertised image was of Pryor's body dangling like a marionette from strings being held by Jackie Gleason.

By decade's end, such Pryor starring vehicles as "Critical Condition" and "Moving" had come and gone without anybody paying attention.

On this matter, his regret comes right out. He has blamed his own "greed." It had been his dream, to be a movie star. How does he feel today about his movie work?

"Can you put this in writing?" Pryor takes in a breath, puts his tongue between his lips, and blows -- a loud, hearty raspberry.

"Except for one I did with Paul Schrader."

"Blue Collar," 1978. A critically praised drama costarring Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto, a pair of serious character actors. "That's where I learned the most about my craft and about actors. 'Cause it was very intense." He wishes, when he looks back, that there were more films like that.

"I wish there was a guy to go 'No,' " Pryor says. "Just one of those czars that go, '{Expletive} you!' That would have made me -- " He bangs his forehead with the heel of his palm.

"But man, I never had that much in my life. Moneys. You don't know what it's like. It's a curse. It's great, but it's a curse. Because, you know -- moneys!" He makes an excited face.

"And there are women who know -- 'Hmmm, you don't know what to do with that $2 million? Well, let's think of something.' "

These days, Pryor's life is "mostly pretty much this," he says. A trainer comes over three days a week to give him hell in the gym. "I take my showers, and baths. And what's her name? Yvette, she does my nails, she treats me nice. She's a very nice lady. And I met her little girl a couple of times. And some of my friends come over, and we get to watchin' football."

Staley takes his breakfast tray away. He chases down a cup of pills with orange juice.

Richard Pryor has long joked about God. He describes the multiple sclerosis as God's way of telling him, "Slow down."

But, as a serious matter, what is the status of his relationship with that force, God?

Pryor takes a moment.

"When you have a blackness," he says, "and you reach out of the blackness into the light, it's the thought of Him. And you feel that. Just for instance, that guy getting knocked out {in Germany}. I'll never forget that. That was wrong. But I knew it. That was God. 'Cause I stood there. And I could've got arrested, I didn't care. The guy worried me, because I thought he might've been dead, you know. He wasn't.

"I just think that we, as people, sometimes don't be nice to each other. And sometimes we're real good to each other. And I think that's it. It's like a friend said to me: 'Life's a bitch, and then you die, and you don't get change.' That's strange, huh?"

And you don't get change?

"Yeah. You don't get change." He grins. "That struck me as funny."